A Chameleon, a Boy, and a Quest by J.A. Myhre

Ten year old Mu has lived with the family of his great-uncle, the mukumu (a African traditional priest who can cast curses and give protection from them), for as long as he can remember. Mu is treated more as a servant than as a member of the family, but at least he gets to go to school for half a day. Then one day on the way to school, Mu makes a friend, and everything in his life changes as his talking chameleon friend chooses Mu and calls him on a mysterious quest.

“The Myhres, Scott and Jennifer, are missionary physicians who joined Serge (then World Harvest Mission) in 1991, and have worked in East Africa since 1993: 17 years in Bundibugyo, Uganda; five years in Kijabe, Kenya; and now partnering with a busy Kenyan government hospital in Naivasha.”

Author J.A. Myhre is the “Jennifer” of the missionary couple, and she wrote this story as a Christmas present for her four children. Ms. Myhre is obviously well-versed in the flora, fauna, and culture of east Africa as a result of her many years spent living in that part of the world. As Mu travels through the savannah and up the mountains, following the chameleon’s instructions, mostly, the reader gets a wonderful introduction to the geography and culture of east Africa, embedded in an adventure story that is sure to thrill and intrigue. Mu rides an elephant; he sleeps in a warthog’s den; and he escapes from the evil rebel soldiers who try to use him as a child soldier. However, Mu is not without his own evil and cowardice, and he finds himself forced to make choices that are all too disastrous in their consequences.

The talking chameleon and other talking and helpful animals in the story give the tale a hint of “magical realism”, and the ending is pure fantasy. However, for the most part Mu’s story is all too realistic and somewhat sad. Hope is found in Mu’s animal guides and in his calling to an important quest. The book isn’t preachy at all, but it does give a lot of food for thought and discussion as Mu travels through the countryside. What will Mu do when he has the opportunity to rescue a friend, but at the risk of his own life? What will he do when his captors demand that he prove himself to be a man by killing yet another friend? The violence and evil aren’t graphic or gratuitous, but the story is also not without disturbing scenes. If your child isn’t ready to read about animal deaths and human cruelty, condemned and later redeemed but definitely a significant part of the story, then you might want to wait on this one.

I’m really looking forward to Ms. Myhre’s second and third books in this African series, the Rwendigo Tales:

A Bird, a Girl, and Rescue, Book #2
A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely Star, Book #3 (to be released in September, 2017)

If you want to know more about the Doctors Myhre and their work, now in Uganda, here’s a link to their blog.

Treasures from Barefoot Books

Barefoot Books, a publisher and bookseller dedicated to producing inclusive and diverse books, sent me a selection of lovely books that I can’t wait to write about. Their website says, “At Barefoot Books, our mission is to share stories, connect families and inspire children.” I’m impressed with the quality and diversity of the books I have been able to review from Barefoot Books.

My Big Barefoot Book of Spanish & English Words by Sophie Fatus. This picture dictionary includes words paired with pictures, but also a simple narrative that takes readers through the day with a family in Spanish. Each vocabulary word and each narrative sentence is accompanied by English translation. Beginners aren’t going to learn much grammar or sentence structure from a book like this one, but it’s a great format for vocabulary building. The illustrations are bright and colorful, acrylic painting and colored pencil, and the book itself is large enough for two people to share comfortably. No pronunciation guide, but again it looks like a great vocabulary builder.

The Wise Fool: Fables from the Islamic World by Shahrukh Husain and Michael Archer. Mulla Nasruddin, “a legendary character whose adventures and misadventures are enjoyed across the Islamic world,” is the subject of these tales from the Middle East and Northern Africa. He’s a “wise fool”, the kind of guy who is often the butt of the joke but who gets the last word anyway in his disingenuous and sometimes innocent, sometimes shrewd, wisdom. Mullah Nasruddin is not above a little white lie or a trick now and then if he thinks it might serve a higher purpose, but he’s generally a harmless and benign presence in these tales. These stories would make a good comparison/contrast to Aesop’s fables, or one could try to pair each story with one of Solomon’s proverbs in the Bible. Just reading the stories and enjoying their sly wisdom could spark discussion and give a good introduction to Islamic and Middle Eastern culture. The illustrations are beautiful collage-type spreads in an Islamic mosaic style, but the many pages where the print is imposed on a deep colored background were hard on my (elderly) eyes.


Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary and Rich Chamberlin, illustrated by Julia Cairns. This picture book is a backlist title, originally published in 2005. However, it’s a worthy multicultural story, set in Kenya, about a boy and his mama who are planning a pancake supper. Mama rather mysteriously tells Adika that she will make ” a little bit and a little bit more” pancakes when he ask how many pancakes she plans to cook. So, Adika feels free to invite the entire community, all of their friends and acquaintances, to join them for the pancake supper. Will there be enough? The story ends like the old European tale Stone Soup and shows how a village can come together in generosity and community.


My Granny Went to Market: A Round-the-World Counting Rhyme by Stella Blackstone and Christopher Corr. Another backlist title from 2005, this counting book has Granny visiting ten different countries on a magic carpet purchased in Istanbul, Turkey at the beginning of the book. She ends up in Peru where Granny gives the magic carpet away to another adventurer. The rhymes are adequate, both rhythm and rhyme a little off, but the colorful pictures and the journey itself all around the world are worth a look. It’s short and sweet, for beginning world travelers.


The Beeman by Laurie Krebs and Valeria Cis. Yet another backlist title (2008), this one begins with a poem about our dependence on bees by classic children’s poet Aileen Fisher. Then, Ms. Krebs writes her own poem in the style of This Is the House That Jack Built and tells about a boy’s admiration for his grandpa “who’s know in our town as the Beeman.” All the many aspects and stages of beekeeping and honey extraction are examined in rollicking rhyme as the boy and his grandfather care for the bees together. Then, there’s more information bout bees an beekeeping in the back of the book as well as a recipe for Grandma’s Apple and Honey Muffins. This story in rhyme is definitely a “keeper”.

Never Trust a Tiger: A story from Korea, retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Melanie Williamson. Based on the traditional Korean tale “The Tiger in the Trap”, this easy-to-read folktale plays out in six brief chapters. A merchant rescues a tiger from a pit where the tiger is trapped, but the tiger immediately proceeds to repay the merchant’s good deed with a very bad deed: the tiger is determined to eat the merchant. “You can’t follow a good deed wth a bad deed,” says the merchant. And the two of them decide to find a judge who can tell them whether or not bad deeds can follow good ones. The moral of the story: never trust a tiger, or be careful whom you help.

Lola’s Fandango by Anna Witte, illustrated by Micha Archer, narrated by The Amador Family. This picture book, set in Spain, is accompanied by a audio CD narration with flamenco music as a background. Lola wants to distinguish herself from big sister Clementina by learning to dance the flamenco, but to do so Lola must practice hard. And she must find her duende (spirit, attitude, courage). Fandango, as well as I can ascertain, is a particular style of flamenco. This book would be hard to read aloud for those of us who are unfamiliar with flamenco and its rhythms. Lola practices the rhythm over and over, “Toca, toca, TICA! Toca, toca, TICA! Toca, TICA! Toca, TICA! Toca, TICA!” I would have no idea how to read this properly, so I’m glad the CD narration is included. There’s also a Spanish version of this title in the Barefoot Books online catalog.

There you have it. I’m sold on all of these books—and on books from Barefoot Books, generally. And I got to take a trip around the world while reading these delightful titles. What a bargain!

Walking Home by Eric Walters

This middle grade novel, published in Canada and set in Kenya, has wonderful themes about forgiveness and responsibility and family loyalty and trust and the power of imagination. I don’t know how popular stories set in foreign countries are among the target audience, but this one is a great read.

Thirteen year old Muchoki and his younger sister, Jata, can hardly believe what has become of their lives. Only weeks ago, they lived in a bustling Kenyan village, going to school, playing soccer with friends, and helping at their parents’ store. But sudden political violence has killed their father and destroyed their home. Now Muchoki, Jata and their malaria-stricken mother live in a refugee camp. Will Muchoki be able to care for Jata when tragedy strikes the little family yet again?

The book tells a “journey story”. Muchoki and Jata walk across Kenya, through the great city of Nairobi, and to their grandparents’ home in Kambaland. But the book is about much more than cross-country hiking. As they travel, Muchoki in particular, who has seen and experienced terrible things when the family was forced out of their village, learns to trust people again, even people from the tribes that were his enemies and who killed his father and burned the family’s village. This trust, and even the beginning embers of forgiveness, do not come easily. Muchoki is often torn between his responsibility to protect his sister Jata, and his desire, even need, to ask for help and depend on adults around him to assist him in reaching his grandfather’s home. Muchoki is right to be careful and right to trust, and the book does an excellent job of showing how this young man, wise beyond his years, manages to balance the two. The book even hints at Muchoki’s loss of faith in the God who allowed such terrible things to happen to him and to others and his steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

In light of the terrible events in Kenya this past week and the other atrocities that keep filling our news feeds, this story is a good one to help children and adults begin their own journey of processing, trusting, caring, and forgiving.

Since I’m Planning to Read about Africa

I found this article, How To Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina, at the website of a magazine called Granta. A few of Mr. Wainaina’s many rules for writing about Africa:

1. Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title.
2. Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat.
3. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside.
4. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket.
5. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant.
6. Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances.

Read the article, especially if you’re planning a book about Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author and journalist who follows his own rules exactly I’m sure. He wrote How To Write About Africa in 2003 (but it’s new to me). One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir by Binyavnaga Wainana was published in 2011.